“The Forgotton War” – World War II – 1939-1945
The Squadrons First Raid
|Getting Ready to Go
Plt Off Young flew this Blenheim Mk1 aircraft on the Sqn’s first bombing raid of WWII (Note 8 Sqn’s “HV” Sqn identification letters)
The outbreak of WWII found 8 Sqn still in its adopted home of Khormaksar. The venerable Vincent aircraft remained on the Sqn inventory – they were ideally suited for the air-policing role. However the Suez Canal was vulnerable to potential intervention by Fascist Italy. The Italians had been pursuing a campaign of their own against Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1936 and had used poison gas dropped from aircraft against the helpless population. To counter this threat, 8 Sqn had been equipped with Blenheim I aircraft in April 1939 – the Vincents were retained for operations in the interior of the protectorate; the Blenheims prepared for operations in East Africa.
In June 1940, German forces had launched their blitzkrieg into France and the country was on the verge of collapse. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was evacuated from Dunkirk. With their usual good timing, the Italians chose this moment to declare war on France and Britain.
Hostilities with Italy gave British forces two major problems in the Middle East. The Italian army maintained vast forces in both Libya and Abyssinia. These were two routes into Egypt and the Suez Canal. Allied forces in British and French Somalia – a thin strip of land over the Red Sea from Aden prepared to beat off an Italian assault and hold out until Empire forces could relieve them. The hugely important campaign in North Africa and the Defence of Egypt against Italian forces and the German Afrika Corps is beyond the scope of this history. However, the war in East Africa, although smaller in scale, directly involved No 8 Sqn and is briefly described here.
|Vickers Vincent in Camouflage Paint Scheme|
On 12th June 1940, 9 Blenheim Is, led by the CO, Sqn Ldr Radford, attacked Macaaca airfield near Assab in Italian held Eritrea. This Blenheim pictured opposite, I6653 “HV-Y” flown by Plt Off Young (pilot), Sgt Jones (Obs), and LAC Cumner-Price (AG) was the second aircraft to bomb. Only one enemy fighter was seen and it did not attack: a hangar and several Italian aircraft were damaged.
Later that night, five ancient Vincents, led by Khomaksar’s Station Commander Wg Cdr “Ginger” Barratt hit the same target starting several fires.
The Italians retaliated by raiding Khormaksar on the next night; the result of which is the story of the Italian, the Stn Cdr, and the AOC.
The Italian, The Station Commander, and the AOC
On 10th June 1940, Italy declared war against the Allies. On the night of 13th June, 3 Italian S81 bombers raided the British base at Khormaksar. One of the aircraft which had raided Aden had made a navigational error and landed in a wadi about 150 miles up the coast east of Aden. So three 8 Squadron Vincents, now fully armed and bombed up, left Aden to capture the aircraft and its crew. The Vincents were led by Wing Commander Barrett who was the Station Commander at Khormaksar and had been the Squadron CO until the beginning of 1939. After searching for a little time, the Italian aircraft was located, and a message was dropped to it telling the crew to leave the aircraft and hoist a white flag. The Italians were only too anxious to comply and a white flag was flying almost immediately.
|The AOC’s attempt at Landing|
The Wing Commander then landed and, armed to the teeth, approached the Italians just in time to stop their wireless operator sending a message. Both the machine and its occupants were disarmed, and searched for anything worth appropriating before falling into official but equally avaricious hands. The crew were then put into the Vincents and flown back to Aden.
Later, the Wing Commander with 2 other aircraft returned to the Italian machine with ground crew and petrol, taking with them the Italian navigator.
After spending the night there, the Wing Commander attempted to taxi the Italian S81 to ground suitable for a take off. Having no brakes he attained such a speed that he decided to take off then and there, which he did to the astonishment of the airman who was marshalling him. The Vincents then left also, but when they arrived at Khormaksar they were surprised, and not a little concerned, to find that the worthy Station Commander was not there.
Eventually he was found. He had run out of petrol and landed in the desert twenty miles north of Aden. First on the scene was the AOC who had taken a Vincent immediately he heard of the Wing Commander’s whereabouts. When he found the Italian machine he tried to land alongside and neatly turned the Vincent up onto its nose. It was fortunate that the landing was no worse since the Vincent was bombed up.
|The Aircraft which caused the Trouble!
The Italian S81 on display at Khormaksar
By this time, the Wing Commander was in poor shape. Being stranded in the desert for some time he was suffering from hunger, thirst, and nervous exhaustion. His only sustenance was from a bottle of whisky that happened to be on the aircraft, and from this he had liberally helped himself. Although taken for strictly medical reasons, the results on an empty stomach were unusual for an officer of his standing. It was in such a state that he was found by the AOC. A W/T message was sent back to Aden and the AOC’s car was sent to the rescue.
The next morning, in spite of attempts to dissuade him, the Wing Commander flew another Vincent out to the Italian S81.
There he landed and, not to be outdone by the AOC, he turned the aircraft right over onto its back. By this time, the S81 had stuck into the sand up to its axles and the scene was one of utter devastation. In addition, the ground party sent out the night before had sunk into the soft sand in their vehicles on the way out.
Eventually the S81 was rescued and converted into a Squadron communications aircraft, but was of very little use.